NUJ follow up: I’m still not convinced

February 12th, 2009 by Dave Leave a reply »

I’ve been doing some thinking about this whole NUJ thing. My post the other night reads very ranty — indeed, I guess it is very ranty — but I’m pleased to see that many readers of this blog agree with what I’m getting at.

And, from the defence, I received some rather predictable responses against my argument.

I’ll start with this point, from Joanna Geary (formerly Birmingham Post, now The Times):

I have much sympathy with your argument, although £13 a month for legal protection may be worth it and it is for that reason I am still an NUJ member.

Of everything I received (and blimey, there was a LOT) this was perhaps the most useful. £13 a month, as Joanna says, is very good to get legal protection.I can’t argue with that.

But it’s comments like this from ‘Chris’ (no link given) that remind me why I wrote that post:

But you wait till you’re staring down the barrel of redundancy – through no fault of your own, just because it happens that your team is being shut down.

Wait till you’re being forced to accept alternative work in a place you don’t want to live or in an area you have no interest in.

Wait till you’re summoned to meetings for a “quick chat” and end up facing four senior managers using classic intimidation tactics.

Then you’ll wish you had a union rep by your side to help fight your corner.

It’s always good to have a union behind you if you’re facing redundancy. Now, I underqualify myself here, as not only have I never faced redundancy, but I work for a corporation that is arguably more ’stable’. In other words, licence fees are still coming in. While not immune, we are safer.

But my issue is that while the NUJ are fighting a corner, it’s all rather pointless. Take this recent example of an NUJ ‘fight’:

The NUJ has strongly condemned the decision of Independent Newspapers to enforce three redundancies at The Kerryman newspaper in Tralee.

Séamus said: “This proposal represents a direct attack on the editorial heart of one of the oldest and most significant newspapers in Ireland. The inevitable consequence would be a poorer newspaper, which would not adequately reflect the community life of Kerry.”

At a meeting with the union yesterday, management announced its intention to make three journalists redundant. The NUJ chapel held an emergency meeting at which management was urged to rescind the decision, which staff say will have a detrimental effect on The Kerryman and Corkman titles.

My issue with this goes back to my ‘SAVE THE JOURNALISTS!” argument. The NUJ is pouring its efforts into protesting job cuts, when really they should be coming together — as a union — to offer more productive aid to their members. Advice on training, re-skilling and re-deployment.

Ed Hart’s comment:

As an objective observer on this one, I have had good and bad experiences of unions. If I had to sum up what I would want a union to do and be, it is to work on behalf of its members. The problem is that some unions lose touch with what this means, and see themselves as lobbyists, or big movers and shakers; when in fact their remit remains low key, but essential to those who really should matter – their members. Do they occasionally forget who the customer is, and what their customer wants?

Helps me counter this argument from ‘thatstheway’ (uh huh, uh huh, I like it!):

Someone so self-consciously hip like you could have some input into its digital media strategy if you weren’t so busy doing precisely what you accuse the NUJ of doing all the time, which is complaining, and making digital media sound like some big deal that’s going to require your special skills alone.

I feel I could contribute with the NUJ no more actively than I could to ASLEF, the train drivers union. Why? I feel I don’t have a connection with their outlook in any shape of form.

I’m all for protecting the strength of print. By doing so, we uphold the values that have made our profession truly great. But I’m also aware that, like the industry, a union has to change and adapt. Sometimes there are battles that cannot be won by standing outside a building with a placard.

I think it’s time for the NUJ to take a step back and reflect.

It needs to swallow a bit of pride and admit that just because journalism is online, doesn’t make it bad. In fact, it can make it very, very good.

It needs to stop posting videos like this, which show not only a devestating lack of understanding about online media, but also an aggressive “We’re trained and you WILL employ us” attitude that we just can’t afford to have anymore.

Maybe what we need to do is knock our collective heads together and search for ideas of how the NUJ can modernise and become the forward-thinking union we all need it to be.

Because here’s the thing: I want to join the NUJ. One commenter on my last post accused me of having no sense of solidarity which, and I hope my friends would vouch for this, couldn’t be further from the truth. If the NUJ can bring itself up to speed, I would love to get stuck in and get my hands dirty.

I believe in the future of journalism. I believe that journalists will be as important in 50 years than they have ever been. I’m preparing myself, and training myself, for a world without newsprint. It’s time the NUJ got ready too.

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  1. Dave Molloy says:

    Interesting that you’ve used an example from the Irish wing of the NUJ. They’ve proven in the past to be incapable of processing an application to join (which I submitted three times, in fact). I also know a few journalists in the national papers who aren’t members, and express apathy towards the idea. I had, however, always connected this to the fact that the Irish chapter was useless, rather than the organisation at large.

    Dave Molloy’s last blog post..Twittering from Davos 09

  2. 'Chris' says:

    Dave, I have news for you – we share an employer and all the incidents I referred to in my previous comment happened to me at the BBC. If you think you are somehow “safer” at the BBC, you are sadly mistaken.

    I think you are right in many of your points: particularly that the NUJ must recognise the huge changes taking place in the industry rather than blindly fighting cuts (I think they do more than you realise, but anyway).

    But it’s the existence of unions that forces employers to behave well and treat employees fairly. However cosy you might feel in your post now, I’m sorry to say that when that bottom line needs addressing the niceties go out the window. One of the reasons things aren’t quite so bad at the BBC is because the NUJ and Bectu are stronger than elsewhere.

    When the cuts come to your area it’ll be nothing personal – just another team management have decided to liquidise (sometimes with good reason, I’ll admit that). But believe me, it can get really nasty if you turn out to be an “inconvenience”. And I mean illegally, make-an-employment-barrister-gasp sort of nasty.

    If you want to fight that on your own, that’s our decision. Me, I’d rather have some professional back up for a few quid a month.

    And please don’t think being a multi-platform master will make you immune. That really doesn’t come into the equation when they’re deciding where to make the cuts – it’s posts not people.

    Anyway, it should be obvious now why I haven’t given a link, as I am still enjoying a job of my choosing at the BBC , but I don’t take for granted anything past the next 12 months any more.

  3. 'Chris' says:

    Obviously that should be “your”, rather than “our” decision, though I am of course happy to give advice should you ever need it :)

  4. Dave says:

    Hi Chris,

    I realise the BBC isn’t safe, but it is certainly safer. My own contract is up fairly soon — before the summer — so I’m more than aware of the realities in the workplace.

    I think my main point is that the NUJ should be a union for ALL journalists. By having a pompous attitude, they are failing to do that.

  5. David says:

    Two good posts on unions, and I also feel that I don’t get much from the NUJ.

    At the same time, it’d be nice to know how I could become more involved, more aware of what they do, and do my bit.

    Anyone got any ideas how I could do that?

  6. 'Chris' says:

    I don’t come across much pomposity, and I’m generally easily put off by that sort of thing.

    The union has two key roles – one, to fight collectively for jobs and conditions for all staff (members and non-members alike. So you get to feel “safer” for free).

    In fact, if you are currently being paid UPA then you have at least £2k a year to thank the NUJ for, as the BBC was determined to scrap it last year.

    Two, to look after and help protect individuals who find themselves threatened with losing their job, or conditions, or otherwise maltreated in the work place.

    I’m guessing there are very few people who would agree with all NUJ policies and decisions (even union officials), but you still have that individual protection by being a member. And if you disagree with the policies strongly enough, you can make your voice heard.

    I don’t share your feeling of safety – but that comes of 10 years of battle scars I suppose ;)

  7. There’s a long-running argument in not just the NUJ but most unions about what the role of a union is. Is it just to ‘defend’ positions, or is it to actively engage in order to ensure change is made for the best reasons – that is reasons which maintain employment conditions and rights while also improving the way we do our job. One reason I’ve always liked the NUJ is that it is a political and professional organisation, able to address both sides of the debate. There was a time when the view that we should have nothing to do with engagement because that was ‘management’s job’ have, thankfully gone – enabling the NUJ to be more than just a force for oppositionism.

    Of course, there are still people within the union who think we have no business ‘engaging’, so those of us who disagree need to be inside to argue the point and maintain the right approach. I think journalists, like all working people, need to be more involved in the process of how the work they do is carried out. The problem is, most employers don’t. Which is why we need a union to argue the case, and to ensure that – for example – emerging technologies are used not to cut jobs and lower wages, but to enable us to work in better ways and to develop the craft.

  8. Certainly was a rant! I’m a recipient of the NUJ’s George Viner scholarship, so I can only see the organisation through wonderful rose-tinted specs. Maybe if you could redirect your fiery energy towards ITV and its burning-up of regional news, that would be far more appreciated. Good blog though!

    Scott Roberts’s last blog post..Westcountry Live (1993-2009)

  9. TimGopsill says:


    Believe me these arguments have been going on inside the NUJ for years – I’m editor of the maligned magazine and we give as much of our very limited space to them as we can. That’s the point of the union – everyone gets a say, and at the moment the demand on us from huge numbers of our 37,000-odd membership is to so something about the devastation of their jobs.

    What you expect us to say? – sorry pals, you may pay us £13-20 a month to safeguard your livelihoods but you’re just dinosaurs, go off and drown in the swamp. This is the hardest time for work that journalists have ever had, and we can barely keep up with that demand. Our officials are run off their feet. That might be why your emails weren’t replied to, I don’t know, but obviously I’m sorry about that.

    We can all see where the industry is going, and no-one is pretending that the newspaper print publishing model will survive. We are putting a lot of work into helping members adapt, with research projects, training programmes and joining the industry debate.

    Enjoyed your rant at the Daily Mail. Here’s a thing about the Mail: it’s a non-union paper. No collective voice for journalists to check its loaded and ludicrous kind of reporting. If you think the FT, Guardian or Independent are better (if you can bear to read newspapers at all) – well they’re very strong union offices. Spot the difference.

  10. Rosie Niven says:

    A union is its members – not just officials. There are many active members up and down the country recruiting people and fighting people’s corner (and that’s not just about defending jobs). Many are doing this in their spare time and needless to say they are unpaid positions. Therefore when you say “The NUJ” is this and “The NUJ” is that, don’t forget that you are talking about a huge organisation covering two countries and a number of different sectors. Members have started campaigns and influenced policy – you could do the same. The complaint about defending jobs at the expense of helping members adjust to change has been made before, indeed it’s something the union here in Australia is grappling with at the moment. Perhaps the union should be giving more priority given to helping members adjust. I know there are members who feel the same way, maybe you should add your voice?

    Rosie Niven’s last blog post..Inside Lonely Planet

  11. Dave (and anyone else working in new media), I’d encourage you to join the New Media list run by the union – . It costs nothing to join and you don’t have to be a member, but if you want to make these points to a group of people – many of whom would be sympathetic to your view, but are still members – and possibly make a difference, then please join.

    Donnacha DeLong’s last blog post..The UK media in crisis (Corporatism in crisis Part I)

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  15. CloserFusion says:

    Good to see this conversation continued here. And like some people have mentioned, you cannot make changes by staying outside. You have to be inside to share you views and ideas and team up with like minded people to make any change.

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